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Treat Customer Complaints As Gifts

Furniture World Magazine


Customer complaints are really "gifts" of information.

"A complaint is a statement about expectations that have not been met." The only way to meet and exceed customer expectations is to know what those expectations are. Customers who complain are among the few who tell us exactly what their expectations are and thus provide the most inexpensive form of market research. Barlow and Moller in their book A Complaint is a Gift, tell us to treat this information as a gift and respond to the complaining party as if he or she had given us a gift. This response evokes the "reciprocity principle" and usually results in increased loyalty from the customer.

What do the customers who complain want? Most customers only want what they feel they were denied. So, if they are given what they wanted and a sincere apology, even if the complaint can not be satisfied ( the truck has already left with the deliveries for the day ) the customer still gets the wanted recognition that their complaint was meaningful. Companies can generate a feeling of reciprocity by taking the complaint seriously and offering some concession: a price reduction, a free product or gift, a coupon for future considerations, assurance that something has changed in the business to prevent future re-occurrences. These concessions need not be costly but they must be perceived as timely and sincere.

Not all unhappy customers are the same. Relatively few unhappy customers complain to the company even though they may complain vigorously to others. Some studies suggest that there are up to 27 unhappy customers for each one who actually complains. Companies must therefore make it easy for customers to complain to them and have an effective means for responding to those complaints. If we respond effectively the previously dissatisfied customer will become a good will ambassador and not a terrorist.

How should we respond to Consumers and their complaints if we want to treat the complaint "like a gift?" Here are eight suggestions from the book A Complaint is a Gift:

1. Say thank you: Thanking the customer for providing the information that your product or service did not meet their expectations signals that you are interested in their expectations and how you failed to meet them. Most complaining customers will be surprised at the thanks and be more receptive to further conversation. "Thank you" makes them think you will do something for them, "I'm sorry" sounds like the customer is out of luck.

2. Explain why you appreciate the complaint: You now know something important about your customers that you formerly did not know. Specifically, the complaint may have been about a product line, sales person or policy that is new and needs adjustment.

3. Apologize for the mistake: Without consideration for the validity of the complaint, a sincere apology for the circumstances surrounding the customer's plight will further demonstrate to the customer that their interests are your primary concern. Do not apologize first, you do not know what to apologize for until you have established a relationship with the customer and know the problem for which you are apologizing.

4. Promise to do something about the problem immediately: There are two major phases to service recovery: psychological and tangible. Promising to do something completes the psychological phase. Customers relax in anticipation of their problem being resolved and become ready to help you to help them.

5. Ask for necessary information: The second phase of service recovery is tangible. Right now you need something from the complaining customer, the exact details of the problem and what they consider a satisfactory resolution. Make sure that your company's staff and your complaint handling system are prepared to respond to the gift that the customer is bringing.

6. Correct the mistake promptly: Effective service recovery depends on rapid response. Many strategies are available to determine what is necessary to satisfy the unhappy customer. Fewer than two percent of complainers are trying to get something they know they do not deserve from the company. Most complainers don't expect the product or service to be provided free of charge, but they do expect to be recognized as someone who matters. Companies need not spend large amounts of money or give away the store to solve customer problems if the staff and store policy treat the complaint and the complainer with the proper respect.

7. Check customer satisfaction: Follow up and be sure the solution you provided was satisfactory. See if the customer has any further information for you. Is there anything that will prevent the customer from buying from you again? Have you forged a partnership with the customer that is the hallmark of a relationship that will last?

8. Prevent future mistakes: Make sure company systems, culture and training are designed to use the information received from complaints to prevent future problems. Install systems that encourage feedback from buyers and non-buyers. It is easy to blame your staff if a large number of complaints are received but the correct target is your process. Make the changes necessary to prevent service failures in the future. Redesign systems that produce complaints, retrain workers who have the most difficulty with customers, change product lines and suppliers who do not meet customer expectations. After all, systems define outcomes.

Most customers do not complain because the cost of complaining is too high in relation to the cost of the item purchased. What makes the cost of complaining so high? The time of the customer is valuable but companies have people and systems that drastically increase the cost of the complaints. Complaint handlers that: apologize but offer nothing else, blame the customer for the complaint, do not return phone calls, promise solutions but do not deliver, behave rudely or pass complainers on are the real cost. Some systems discourage complaints: People do not know where or how to complain, there are too many hassles, there is no follow through, or guarantees are not really guarantees ( they require unavailable paperwork or too many regulations). What can companies expect to save by discouraging complaints relative to the information they get from the customers who have not received the quality of product or service they expected? They must take advantage of the chance to build customer loyalty.

How are systems implemented to effect service recovery? Software systems need to have the ability to record the interactions with customers, sort and search by categories of problems, collect information from buyers and non buyers alike, and customize communications between company and customer. The software system needs to be integrated into the daily routine of the organization so the collection and processing of complaints like gifts is the norm and not an unpredictable event. UpFront™ is one example of customer satisfaction software that permits consistent implementation of satisfaction and dissatisfaction policies. UpFront™ or similar software is essential to maximize the strategic value of the information received from customers and non buyers. Without a system to consistently define the outcome, companies will miss the gifts and the customers.

There are four categories as defined by Barlow and Moller: Voicers, Passives, Irates and Activists.

Voicers tell the company what they think is wrong, help the company fix it, and then tell their close friends ( inner circle ) and casual acquaintances ( outer circle ) when they have been treated well and when they have been treated badly.

Passives are the non complainers, they serve companies that want to minimize the number of complaints because there is no word of mouth.

Irates will say modest amounts to the company but will say as much bad as they can say to their inner circles even though they do not complain much to others. Companies typically do not worry about Irates because there complaint behavior is private ( to their inner circles ).

Activists want to pay the company back for the treatment he or she received. They will picket, take out newspaper ads, use the media or find some method to embarrass and humiliate the company because these are the emotions they felt when they were treated badly by the company. Activists are created when the company does not take a complaint seriously and respond promptly to the problem. The Activist will speak to anyone who will listen and complain vigorously to all. The smallest but most visible form of complainant is the Activist.

David Middlebrook is vice president of AAAA Development, LLC. Questions can be addressed to him care of FURNITURE WORLD MAGAZINE at editor@furninfo.com.